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Where we lay the dead.

Happy Halloween!

I love the deep quiet that cemeteries have, even if there are leaves crunching and birds squabbling.  I get the feeling feeling that I’m able to barely brush against something eternal.  As a child I would often be taken on walks at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted.  I suspect this gave me the idea that cemeteries are places for peace and rest, whether you are living or dead.

Here are some cemetery photos I’ve taken in the past year – you may have seen them on Instagram already.  The oldest of the grave markers are from the Eliot Burying Grounds in Roxbury.  It’s usually locked behind a large wrought iron fence.  For two years I used to stand under the horse chestnut tree outside its gates to wait for the bus, and wonder what it would be like to walk inside.  Happily, on a recent walking tour in the neighborhood I got the chance.  I was told that the adjacent building was recently renovated, and when they tore up the foundation they found graves.  I wondered what other sacred places our current buildings cover.

The first images are from last fall, at Mount Auburn Cemetery, a favorite strolling place for me.  And the last images are from the other day, in Edinburgh, the Dean Village Cemetery.  Dean Village was developed in the Victorian era, along the Water of Leith.  I loved the informative turn of the century stones, especially this one:

George Herbert Tayler Swinton, d. 1923, who “at great sacrifice repurchased the lands of his ancestors.” His father, Archibald Adam Swinton, Esq., was formerly of the Bengal Civil Service, and simply “fell asleep at Trecunter Lodge, London, Jan 1894 at the age of 73. His wife, Isabella Reid Swinton, died in the same place in 1909.

George HT Swinton lost his wife Mary the same year as his father.

One wonders if he began to consider reacquiring his family lands after that year of loss.  I wonder what that took.  I wonder what each of these lives were like.

Ke

Celebrate: Halloween

“legend says there is a seam  / stitching darkness like a name.” 

(Annie Finch)

Tomorrow is Halloween.  Why not get in the mood?  I’ve never been much for costumes but I love the iconography and the old meanings of the holiday, the day of the year when this world and the next stand just next to each other, and small glimpses across the divide become easier.

I’ve been interested in watching Dia de los Muertos become more mainstream in the States, too!  When I was home in California I reflected that it felt so much more authentic to the place, so I loved seeing skull sugar candies in supermarkets next to Halloween candy, and hearing about how families and schools celebrate it now.  A holiday for celebrating ancestors, feeling the presence of the past, is a wonderful thing. It’s what this time of year is for me.

Here are some of the things that have been knocking around in my head this week as I think about the coming of Halloween.

. The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.  I have a thing for the “archival fiction” genre, in which a scholar finds or searches for something magical in an archive, which brings the past alive.  This book has all the ingredients of a great one, plus a rich potrayal of the city of Salem, MA and the main character’s family house, the nooks and crannies and overgrown garden doors of which become characters themselves.  It is about witches and making peace between mothers and daughters across generations, and about the Second Sight, something I’ve been hearing many stories about since I got to Scotland.  A perfect pick for Halloween reading.

. I’ve had a little ditty in my head all week.  “One to come, one to stay, one to dance the macabray.”  It worms into my resting mind, “all will dance the macabray…now let’s dance the macabray.”  These snips of poem come from a chapter in Neil Gaiman’s A Graveyard Book.  The chapter is self contained, a scene nestled inside a larger plot, so you don’t have to read the whole thing to find its magic.  And happily you can watch Neil Gaiman read this chapter, titled “Danse Macabre,” on YouTube. It is a great bedtime story, no matter your age.  You can accompany your listening — or your reading of Halloween poems — with Bela Fleck’s “Danse Macabre,” written for the story.

. When I was in San Francisco I picked up potions from Sister Spinster for myself and some of the important women in my life.  I gave them each a different potion that I thought might meet a need in their lives.  For myself, I picked Ghosts: “A vibrational remedy that allows us to see only truth. Sometimes our truths are dark, but we all can walk through shadow with grace; deciphering what we need to release so we can better do our work in the world.”  I have had astonishingly vivid, memorable dreams since then.

. I love Studio Arhoj’s ghosts, which keep watch over my home from my mantel.  Their ghost lamps are just the thing for Halloween.

. I have a sage bush in my backyard that just grows riotous.  We prune it back and put bunches out on our front stoop at least once a year.  In the fall I turn them into smudge sticks, wrapped tight in cotton twine.  I heard a story the other night about a family who has an outdoor booth at a sacred stone in the Highlands, and every Samhain they take it apart and bring it inside.  Halloween is a night of thresholds – between the home and the outside, as the trick or treaters go by, between this world and the next – so why not stand in your doorway with a candle, some dried herbs, a stick of incense, and mark the boundary?

. I can’t resist more Louise Glück.  Here is her “All Hallows” (from poetryfoundation.org). I love thinking about “the barrenness of harvest or pestilence,” especially after reflecting on the abundance of September.

all hallows-01

 

My October: fire and quake

for the next week I’ll be in Edinburgh, Scotland, at a storytelling festival called “Once Upon a Place.”  I’ll also be thinking about this time of year, which the Celts who created Scotland’s bardic traditions called Samhain (the predecessor of Halloween).  In many folk traditions, this is the time of the year when the boundary between this world and the next is thinnest.  There will be stories about land and I can’t wait to share them with you.

October has a whiff of calamity. As a child in the San Francisco Bay Area I lived through two natural disasters, and they both happened in late October.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit San Francisco on a Tuesday evening at rush hour.  I was six.  When the rumbling began, my mother gathered my sister and me under the broad wooden doorjamb in our dining room.  My sister’s little friend froze under the ceiling fan; I remember the feeling of urgency with which my mom darted out from our place of security in order to scoop her up and bring her to safety.

I don’t remember being scared of the shaking, but I remember what happened after.  My dad was supposed to have been coming home from work on the bus.  Across the Bay Bridge.  Which had split in two.

There were hours of waiting.  The jingle of the radio traffic reports playing on our silver turntable radio dial every ten minutes echo in my ear when I think about it.  Where was my Dad.  When will he be able to come home.

It turned out he’d turned back to the office and missed his bus, and missed the collapse of the bridge.  I don’t remember now if it was for a coat, or a drink, or a peek at the World Series game on a television somewhere.  I don’t remember the first phone call, or the moment he came home.  But I remember the dread that radiated from my mother, that poured out of the radio speakers into my little living room, that October night.

Two years later, my parents were driving me home from a friend’s birthday party at a bowling alley, through the fall landscape of brittle brown hills and oak trees.  The air turned black and choking.  Smoke reached towards the car and closed around us.  The hills were on fire.  They called it the Oakland Hills Firestorm.

Over the next two days my elementary school would burn.  My friends’ homes would burn.  My prized possessions burned; I was Person of the Week at school, and my vintage copy of the Wizard of Oz, pointe shoe signed by my ballet teacher, and other special objects that I no longer remember were eaten by the flames along with the good work stars on the wall and the books about Ancient Egypt.

Grownups walked around with bandanas on their mouths; we kids were kept inside.  My grandparents made plans to evacuate to our house, which was safely located in the flat part of town, where there was more asphalt than tinder grass and eucalyptus.  We prepared an evacuation box just in case.  What should we take? We asked ourselves.  Family photos.  My stuffed koala.  The things that weren’t at school.

I realize that most of my memory of these events was my perception of the emotions of the grown-ups around me.  And the lingering sense that in October, something is not right.  Anything can happen.  The Diablo Winds brought danger on those tongues of heat.

When I was home in Oakland earlier this month, these memories crackled.  October in California is about burning, and bones, not witches and pumpkins.  My skin pulled tight and dry.  And I couldn’t stop thinking about fire.

IMG_6040 IMG_6043 IMG_6046 IMG_6100 IMG_6106On my last day, the weather broke.  From my mother’s kitchen window I could see the fog march down over Pacific mountains and across the bay.

IMG_6121The next morning I wrote:

The people in the painted houses shivered

and sucked in relief with the grey

while the city glowed.

 

 

 

 

 

September Tomatoes

“September Tomatoes” by Karina Borowicz has become one of my touchstones this season.  
Preview of “September Tomatoes by Ka...- The Poetry Foundation”

Traditions are a way of measuring the passage of time – the day, the week, the year, the passing years – because they force us to tune into change.  Where were we during the last time we celebrated a season changing?  The last time we ate apples and honey?  Who were we with, how were we feeling?  Family traditions can be especially evocative in this way, because we feel them assemble in a kind of continuum over the course of our lives.  As adults, I feel like we live these traditions in a kind of double time: in the present, as a way to attend to the moment or the celebration in our current lives, and in our memories, as we remember our own experience as a child participating in them.  Celebrating each holiday or keeping each tradition in a way is the feeling of reliving each one that you’ve kept previously — and if it’s a cultural or family tradition, reliving all of those kept by the people before you.  It’s a burden and a joy to find a way to live traditions as an adult, when you have to keep them yourself, and make them for others.

“September Tomatoes” I think is about this feeling.  Borowicz goes from a very specific, personal meditation on the feeling of pulling up a tomato plant in her backyard, to

“My great grandmother sang with the girls of her village as the pulled the flax.  Songs so old and so tied to the season that the very sound seemed to turn the weather.”

IMG_5912The last stanza of the poem is about tradition, about how a community’s labor and its land are so in sync with the passage of time that cause and effect seem blurred. Here, tradition is about communality.  Whereas the growing of the tomato plants is such a labor of individual care –  “I’ve carefully cultivated” the tomato plants, she says — the “girls of the village” pull flax, and share songs together.  “Songs so old.”  I think the jarring relationship this stanza has with the previous three reflects how different abundance is when it’s individual rather than collective, when the requirements of the change in season come with culture and shared traditions.  I feel like there’s a plaintive tone in these lines which is in tune with the kind of searching I feel for shared practice.  Pulling up tomato plants feels cruel because it seems final, “destroying” the work of “all those months.”  Traditions, however, are cyclical; there was flax and song every year.  But not anymore.

There’s a richness in those first three stanzas, though, that’s not represented in the fourth.  It’s a sensory awareness – “whiskey stink,” a “burst of fruit flies” and “claws of tiny yellow blossoms.”  Awareness is something that I think is just as important as tradition when it comes to being a part of a place and its seasons, and I think it connects you to others who share the same sense for place and time. 

I picked up a chestnut at the same time as a woman I was walking alongside the other day. “I love how smooth they are,” she told me, “I pick one up and keep it in my pocket, and just roll it around in my fingers all day.  They remind me of growing up in England. Chestnuts say fall to me.”  Sensory awareness is very much grounded in the present moment but can also connect you to your past, like the smooth feel of chestnut under her chilly fingers.

What makes you feel like fall has come?  Chestnuts (and acorns! and mysterious seed pods hanging from unidentified trees!) say fall for me.  Mums on front porches.  When it starts to get dark during dinner.  Birds flocking in our backyard eating grass seeds.  A friend reminded me that there’s a shift in the air that says fall, too. And more tomatoes than we know what to do with.

So we shared our tomato abundance with our friends.  And we reflected individually about abundance that we have failed to share with others, abundance that we regret not taking advantage of.  This regret is part of the personal work of fall, a natural response to the experience of moving from abundance to austerity.  During the High Holy Days, after you throw your regrets in the water like we threw our seedpods, you are expected to make amends, especially with the people who you’ve affected, for this “missing the mark” (what I was taught “sin” is literally translated to in Hebrew).  This happens over the following ten days, and then you atone with a fast on Yom Kippur.  You begin with a bounty, with sweetness, then you reflect, you repair or ask forgiveness, you cleanse, and then you’re ready to start a new year.

Another thing. A “harvest” time like in the great great grandmother stanza is a time of work.  It took work to change from fat to lean, to take advantage of abundance so it does not go to waste.  Traditions can be traditions of labor.  I think too often I think of them only in terms of leisure.

Cultivating: Harvest

On the Autumnal Equinox, I put out a cutting board laden with apples and honey. I sliced an apple at its equator and left it open on the table, revealing the star of seeds. Apples and honey are a symbol of Rosh Hashanah, the first holiday of the Jewish High Holy Days and the marker of the Jewish New Year, but that core of seeds made me think of Persephone.  Seeds, the rhythms of the day and the year, the poetry and work of abundance and austerity – those are some of the things that this season means to me.

IMG_5907Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (Goddess of the land and earth), was just a girl, playing in the fields, when she was taken by her uncle Hades and brought to the underworld. While she shivered in the darkness, her mother roamed the earth, her grief shriveling crops and blackening seeds. Hades offered Persephone a pomegranate, a gesture of the summer that she had left behind aboveground. When Demeter found them, she negotiated for her daughter’s release. Hades demanded that Persephone return to him every year, one month for every pomegranate seed she had eaten. Seven seeds. When her daughter returned to the living, Demeter restored the fields and a time of warmth and growth followed. And then, when Hades came to take her back, Demeter’s grief once again turned the world to death, to follow her daughter. And so we have the seasons. Ripe fruits are the seeds of death, and a journey into darkness only brings us closer to the spring.

Persephone, for her part, never quite felt at home on the surface, in her mother’s world of abundance and nourishment. Part of her relished the damp austerity and the darkness beneath. It felt like relief, somehow.IMG_6102

Like all myths and traditions, this story contains the truth of what it feels like to slip from the fullness of summer into the stripped color of fall. And so on the equinox we shared apples and honey, and the overwhelming number of tomatoes that our garden has recently produced. We sang songs about purification and joy with hundreds of our neighbors at the Revels RiverSing, and then we walked along the Charles River, in the moonlight, and read a poem. I led a kind of hybrid tashlikh/equinox ritual: I had everyone bring a seed or seed pod to the gathering.  When we got to the river I asked, “When have you failed to share your abundance with the people you love? When have you allowed plenty to become overindulgence, waste, and guilt?” And when we’d reflected on the question, each of us, on our own time, threw our seeds into the river.

So I offer here some of my seasonal reflections, and some objects and stories that might help you with yours. As always, check my Pinterest board for more.

. Louise Glück’s Averno is a book of poems about Persephone. It’s a favorite of mine. I’ve felt the Greek myths creeping behind my thoughts many times in my life, since my grandmother read them aloud to me when I was a girl. Poetic interpretations are the best ones.

Here’s a stanza from “October,” which feels just right for this 80 degree day.

Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.

Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away –

You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.

A day like a day in summer.
Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples
nearly mauve on the gravel paths.
And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer.

It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.

Once more, the sun rises as it rose in summer;
bounty, balm after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed, after the fields
have been harvested and turned.

Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.

. Another poem that’s really resonated with me this season was “September Tomatoes” by Karina Borowicz, a MA poet.  I posted my writing about this poem separately – I encourage you to sit with a poem, read it aloud, and see what the words, their rhythm, and their resonance in your life tell you!

.Take a listen to Richard Reed Parry’s Music for Heart and Breath, which I first learned about on NPR. The meditations on rhythm, the body, and unison will remind you, I hope, of the rhythm of work in the Tomatoes poem, and of the kind of meditation and reflection that’s so important on Yom Kippur.

IMG_5692IMG_5704. Rhythm and physicality are two of the things I love about the craft of weaving. I’ve been making branch weavings lately, inspired by the women at 3191 Miles Apart (a wonderful project filled with the poetry of everyday life). The branches are from a willow tree near my house.   I actually have been weaving while listening to Music for Heart and Breath; they feel like natural companions.  You can make your own cardboard loom, like I did.

. Weaving is a deeply mindful practice, like many slow hand crafts. Adele Stafford is the weaver and thinker behind Voices of Industry, in San Francisco. She hand looms the most exquisite fabric from wool and cotton, and she is deeply engaged in the land that her materials come from. Take a look at the photo essays on her blog and the profiles of the farmers that she works with, who are committed to a slow, organic, mindful way of producing.poetry holds-01

. Whether poetry’s new for you or something you already love, I emphatically recommend to you the conversation between On Being’s Krista Tippett and poet Marie Howe, called, after Howe’s most recent book, “The Poetry of Ordinary Time” (http://www.onbeing.org/program/the-poetry-of-ordinary-time-with-marie-howe/5301) Not only does their conversation touch very much on these themes of the patient, meditative (even sacred) qualities of everyday tasks, but it’s the best discussion of poetry I’ve ever heard.  “There’s a silence at the center of a poem,” she said, that’s very difficult to sit with.  And so I turned it into a poem (at right)

. I started this post with the image of an apple. I might have had apples on the brain because of Rosh Hashanah, or I might have been thinking about them because I had recently heard Rowan Jacobsen talk about his new book Apples of Uncommon Character. It’s filled with great stories about heirloom apples and how they traveled around the country – they’re stories about local pride and historical accidents. And there are recipes! This might be a great gift for the apple/fall enthusiast in your life, or something that you bring out into your own kitchen every fall to reflect on this fruit’s role in our nation’s history. NPR did a great story about heirloom apples recently – they’re having a resurgence, like the heirloom cotton Adele Stafford weaves.

. Apples are actually part of this amazing plant family the rosaceae, which includes roses, crabapples, hawthorns, quinces, and even the wonderful medlar. So don’t limit yourself! Get inspired by hedgerow fruits of all kind. Make rosehip liqueur like a Scandinavian (PS that allotment gardening column is amazing), pick up a pear butter from June Taylor (who also makes some fantastic medlars preserved in brandy, available later in fall/winter – another California maker who just totally makes me swoony), or get fancy and order the totally incredible Sloe Sherry Liqueur from Demijohn in Scotland (also excellent: Somerset Pomona, an apple liqueur, and the Wild Bullace Liqueur).  Ciders are having a renaissance in the US today too - Carr’s Ciderhouse makes beautiful hard ciders and cider vinegars, and is a Martha Stewart American Made finalist, and Russell Orchards Dry Reserve is a natural on a holiday spread, and very low alcohol (a must for me and my low tolerance!).  I love it when ciders are funky and dry, in the English style.  Sadly, many traditional New England cider houses have been converted to wineries in recent years – so I feel strongly about encouraging cider, something that is delicious and well suited to producing high quality product in our region, when it’s being done well!

. Last weekend my husband and I went to the Topsfield Fair, the oldest agricultural fair in America.  It shares with its descendants a love for fried food and absurdly sized pumpkins, but it contains the kernel of what all of these large fall festivals we enjoy now originally meant.  It’s about the abundance of the harvest, celebrating the work by farmers it takes to bring that abundance to market, and the work by housewives and domestic workers it takes to preserve it. And it was so much fun!

. If you’re marking this season with little ones (or even if you aren’t), may I suggest Miss Maple’s Seeds, and A Seed is Sleepy?  I selected

IMG_5931 both of these as part of my Neighborhood Explorers book collection.  Both books show the seed as both mysterious and beautiful for the hidden life inside, and might get you and your children collecting nuts and pods on your walks, whether to admire or to plant.  They have the kind of quiet wonder that I love in children’s books.  And for the seed lover in your life, I also love the exuberant color of the More & Co. Magic Seed crewneck.  

. At this time of year I can’t resist Simon and Garfunkel. They were young men obsessed with aging, and their own mortality. I can’t think of a better musical foil for the Persephone story. Try a live album – 1967 or 1969 are both on Spotify. It gives a sense of the men and how they grew.

. This is a time of year when I spend much of my time in the kitchen. The slow but satisfying process of making the season’s abundance last. And there’s the chilly nights when the warmth from a baking oven seems just the thing. A Rosh Hashanah tradition is honey cake, and I love this one, from Smitten Kitchen. Sometimes I mince in some apples, and I always add about 1/3 cup of sesame seeds.  In the market for a new apron for all those cooking projects?  When I put on my Fog Linen Square Cross Apron, I somehow feel like myself.

IMG_5913. There’s indoor labor – weaving, cooking – and the outdoor labors of harvesting, raking leaves. In autumn that divide begins to feel more important. Your boots are wet from chilly rain. You want to keep the back door closed against the cold. Marking the threshold between home and outside is a sign of autumn. Put a wreath on your front door. And put a Vermont Wooden Doormat outside.

. After the High Holidays begins Sukkot, a harvest celebration based on the practices of building a sukkah, a three sided booth with a natural material for a roof, through which you must be able to see the sky.  This holiday invites people to share an intimate space outside, under the stars.  I’ve been smitten with this holiday for years, though I’ve never had much occasion to celebrate it in the kind of intimate way I’ve heard stories of from others. This article about the food traditions of the holiday is a great introduction  - meals are taken outside, in the sukkah, with friends and neighbors. The last lingering outdoors, the sharing of the plenty of the season.

. So, last week was the Hunter’s Moon, the full moon the Native Americans knew to represent the time when the animals were fattest and the lean months were coming.  In the American calendar and the New England climate, it begins a kind of celebratory season, from harvest festivals to celebrations of death and tradition to “the holidays” – that long stretch between thanksgiving and new years.

So here’s my question to leave you with – the question I’m

IMG_5906IMG_5928trying to answer for myself, and one that I discuss with many friends lately.  How do we make space for both tradition/celebration AND the mindfulness of everyday tasks, as we enter this celebratory period?  What does sharing your bounty mean to you?

Neighborhood Explorers

For the past monIMG_4982th or two I’ve been working on curating a shelf for the Uni Project‘s launch in Boston.  The Uni is a mobile reading   room – think of it as a learning institution for public space – that was started by Leslie and Sam Davol in New York in 2012.  The way Leslie explained it to me when they first began was that she hoped to bring the Uni to places where there was a story already unfolding; that bringing books and learning to public spaces would help communities to see their neighborhoods — and themselves — in a new way.  So the Uni popped up in Corona Plaza with the Queens Museum of Art, which has community engagement at the heart of its mission.  The Uni went to Play Streets all over the city, where community groups had invited them to bring books and learning to street level.  In Brooklyn, the Uni partnered with the public library to bring lending books outside the library walls, so that kids and families could make reading part of their daytime, playtime activities.  And now, there’s a massive Uni cube on Governor’s Island, and Unis run by other organizations in places as far away as Almaty, Kazakhstan.  This spring, the Uni was named one of the winners of Boston’s Public Space Invitational, which will bring it to Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway for families, tourists, and summer picnickers.  Here are some photos of the Uni’s Boston launch!

I love the Uni.  Not just because I had some small role in its inception, but because I think this is a pop-up project that gets it.  That it’s not enough to put snazzy things at street level.  You need for those things to make sense as part of a community’s internal understanding of itself; you need for your snazzy things to be facilitated and meaningful.  Leslie and Sam don’t just put a Uni on the street and let people have at it, they staff it with volunteer librarians, and they staff it themselves.  I once watched Sam mesmerize a group of small children with a zoetrope.  Giving people your time, your energy, showing them that you care about your project, and about their neighborhood, invites them to care too.

So when I had the opportunity to show that I care about the Uni, I jumped at the chance.  Inspired by my favorite baby gift book, Journey by Aaron Becker, I decided to collect a set of books that would inspire kids and adults to go on little adventures in their everyday lives.

From her bedroom to an entirely new world (Aaron Becker’s Journey).

The books for adults were motivated by the idea that we explore best when we learn about something and then go seek out examples of it.  Like that thing when you learn a new word, and suddenly you start noticing it everywhere.  So I chose books like Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast (especially important if you are planning to do any tree ID in winter!) and The Field Guide to Typography: Type Faces in the Urban Landscape.  I also included books with maps and photos, particularly of Boston and how it’s changed over time; another way that adults explore is by comparing the pictures in their mind with the landscape in front of them.  I am a big fan of encouraging this kind of historical imagination because I think it plays a strong role in imagining what might be possible in a place.  And it reminds us that our environments are made, and remade, and can be made better – whatever that means to us.IMG_4913

I used post-its to guide readers towards the interesting questions I thought the particular book posed. This book, Lost Boston, is about Boston buildings and landmarks that no longer exist.

The kids’ books were even more fun, though.  Kids’ books are amazing!  If you are an adult, I urge you to spend time in your library or bookstore’s kid section next time you visit.  No one will think you’re weird, and you will be delighted by their elegantly spare text, their imaginative, lively illustrations, and their poignantly universal themes.  And all that silliness.  If you don’t believe me, trust Maria Popova.  The kids’ books in my Neighborhood Explorers collection are about journeys, big and small, and about learning about nature in cities.  I like the idea of reminding families that there’s non-human nature all around them, a whole ecology that they’re a part of, even right in downtown Boston.explorers title-01

As I chose the books, I thought about the five essential skills of a neighborhood explorer: attention, patience, curiosity, dwelling, and wonder.

attention

In Have You Heard the Nesting Bird? , a pair of children wonder why the robin in their backyard makes no sound.  Each page contains a watercolor illustration of a different bird — birds that would be recognizable in any urban backyard – and an imaginative translation of the sounds that the birds make.  At the end of the book, the robin’s egg hatches, and the children understand why the bird had been quiet for so long.  On the last page is a small-text, to-be-read-by-older-people Q&A with the robin about its nesting habits.  I like this book because of its simplicity and directness, and the way its little drawings and songs inspire me better than any field guide to pay attention to the birds I see and hear everyday.  I also like the book’s suggestion to make up your own words to a bird’s song!

http://hmhyoungreadersblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/haveyouheard1.jpg

Woodpecker and starling sing their songs.

patience

A relative of attention, patience is about letting meaning or discoveries come to you.  This would seem like a counterintuitive thing for exploration, which we picture as an act of boldness and forward motion.  But consider the hunter. She must be still for long durations of time before the skittish deer is willing to show himself (descriptions of Inuit hunters on ice flows, where everything is white, conjure a sense of time totally separate from ours, in which stillness extends for hours as hunters wait for a telltale motion, twisting their focus across massive expanses of undifferentiated distance and terrain).  Similarly, the gardener must wait patiently for seeds to germinate, hidden underground.  This is the metaphor at work in Miss Maple’s Seeds, a totally enchanting book about a tiny woman who lives in a tree, and keeps orphaned seeds through the winter and teaches them to grow.  There is so much quiet beauty in this book, and the care and patience of Miss Maple reminds us of the affections of the archetypal grandmother of our imaginations.  There’s also a spread of carefully watercolored seeds listed by name; maybe this will inspire you or your family to plant some seeds of your own, and whisper encouragement as you wait for them to grow.

Miss Maple reads stories to her seeds as they sleep.

Miss Maple sets her seeds afloat; it’s time for them to find their own place to grow.

curiosity

I loved reading The Adventures of Beekle, an Unimaginary Friend.  In this book, Beekle, an imaginary friend who hasn’t been imagined by anyone yet, decides to leave his imaginary world and try to find a human to be his friend.  He lands in a Real World city and tries to figure out how to navigate it (he only comes up to everyone’s ankles!).  Eventually he finds a friend, and they learn to play together.  At the heart of this book, like several others in the collection (Journey, Peggy: the story of a brave chicken on a big adventure, and The Lost (and Found) Balloon), is an adventure that ends up, in the fashion of Wizard of Oz, showing the explorer that they can bring their curiosity to their own backyards.  Here I Am is a non-fiction version of this adventure story, about a child who immigrates to an urban neighborhood and uses her imagination to navigate this strange new environment.   These books, with their brave protagonists in a scary, big world, reassure their readers that they can find their own way, too: those illustrations of stomping, fast moving, commuting grownup feet are clearly a kids’-eye-view, even if they’re presented through the perspective of an imaginary friend, or a chicken.  Not about coming of age, these books are rather like Alice and Wonderland or a fairy tale, in which a child’s unique perspective allows them to navigate a confusing adult world with integrity, curiosity, and whimsy.  They also remind me of Maria Tatar‘s trope of the bored child (Alice, or Max from Where the Wild Things Are, for example) who finds her way out of despondency by conjuring the outrageous, the frightening, or the simply remarkable.  Curiosity brings an adventurer into a disorienting and new place, into contact with new and unusual people; this is why adventures are both exciting and scary.  But in these stories, curiosity eventually brings you home, just as Beekle finally finds the friend he was looking for.

Beekle’s tiny, brightly colored boat sails into the port of the Real World.

dwelling

Books like Beekle reveal how adventuring and dwelling are really part of the same process: the process of getting to know a place so that it is always familiar and unfamiliar, and the process of getting to know yourself and what you’re capable of.  It’s unfamiliar because you can always discover something new; it’s familiar because you’ve invested the time, patience, and attention to get to know it so well. And the true value of any adventure is the fresh eyes with which you’re able to see the place you started in. So I like the idea of reading a book about a curious adventurer alongside This is Our House, a lovely, simple little book about a child who is the third generation to live in her family’s home.  Her grandparents were immigrants; he adventure isn’t the child’s, it’s the family’s.  And the reward of this kind of multigenerational adventure is to be rooted: to know one tree, one stoop, and one neighborhood, so that it feels truly your own.

Home and family are at the center of This is Our House, about a different kind of journey.

wonder

Few books have communicated wonder to me like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day.  This one is a classic but I don’t remember it from my childhood, perhaps because I grew up in Oakland, California, where the sudden, miraculous appearance of snow is not part of growing up.  And that’s all this book is about.  How a blanket of white can transform the place that you see everyday into a place of magic, joy, and play.  This is something that persists even for adults; now that I live in Massachusetts, I know the delicious feeling of weekend blizzards when, after the weather clears, everyone seems to go outside and play, and talk to each other on the street.  Building snowmen, making snow angels, throwing snowballs.  In these moments, time seems to suspend and stop.  This is, I think, what wonder is.  Wonder isn’t just about curiosity or enjoyment, it’s about feeling a sense of magic, of otherness, of separation from your daily life.  Wonder is something that children bring as part of their orientation to the world; my own childhood was full of of digging for leprechaun gold and writing neighborhood newspapers and investigating local mysteries (yes, one of my favorite books was Harriet the Spy, a great Neighborhood Explorer for the older set).  The Snowy Day captures that simple but profound experience, and hopefully will encourage children and adults alike to seek little ways to put time on hold and feel some magic.

How to be an explorer.

The last part of this project is the one I’m most proud of.  My sister and I designed (she illustrated!) The Young Adventurer’s Guide to Exploring Your Neighborhood.  Right now, the project exists as two postcards that are part of the Uni collection.  The back of the postcard has space for kids or adults to share their own neighborhood observations, and send them to someone they love (or to a stranger, like this incredible project).  The idea was to create spaces during your day for attention, patience, curiosity and wonder, to inspire opportunities for the kind of dwelling and adventuring that the characters in these stories do.  They’re also an encouragement for families to do this kind of adventuring together, with children teaching adults what it means to bring wonder, curiosity, attention, and patience into our world.

If you’re a grownup in NYC, take advantage of Elastic City‘s walks, which inspired this project!

YOUNG ADVENTURERS 2 color-01

young adventurers color-01

Quilts and Color at the Boston MFA

You still have a couple weeks to get to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the temporary exhibit, Quilts and Color.  It’s a total knockout, but not necessarily for the reasons why the MFA thinks it is.  Here’s how the museum describes the show:

“Quilts and Color” celebrates the vibrant color palette and inventive design seen in the acclaimed Pilgrim/Roy Quilt Collection. The exhibition features nearly 60 distinctive quilts from the renowned collection and is the first to explore how, over five decades, trained artists Paul Pilgrim and Gerald Roy searched out and collected quilts with bold, eye-popping designs that echoed the work of mid-20th century Abstract Expressionist and Op Artists.

“Quilts and Color,” as this summary describes, focuses on the quilt collection of a pair of artists, whose interest in color theory and Modern art led them to collect unappreciated and undervalued examples of mostly 19th century handmade American quilts, quilts with “eye-popping designs.”  This tight focus to the show led to two unusual and distinctive curatorial choices.  First: the quilts are hung in the exhibition language of Modern art.  IMG_4441 Here’s a photo of the first gallery — the walls are black, causing the colors of the quilt to pop from the wall.  There’s a railing where the text is installed; you’re kept far away from the quilt, which is presented as a purely visual object.  Each gallery in the exhibition focuses on a concept and color theory, which is exemplified by a painting from the MFA’s collection (colorfield, op-art, minimalist, etc), highlighting the conceptual parallel being drawn between the quilts and this genre of art.

The second outcome of this curatorial focus is the way in which the exhibition interprets the process of collecting, and how private collectors, with their personal taste and obsessions, craft what ends up at museums.  And, by extension, how we see, and what we look at.  This exhibition had the feeling, in moments, of an in-depth investigation of provenance, and why anyone — collector, visitor, or scholar — should care about it.  Have you seen other quilts hung like this in a museum?  Have you ever seen a quilt on a wall at an art museum?  The reason why you see them here is because of the particular mission of the collectors and the closeness with which the curators worked with their collection.

Which brings me to the more important point about this exhibition.  What happens in this show is that a folk art with a long tradition — American quilting — is identified as, and with, fine art.  By virtue of its institutional context, the hanging decisions I described above, and the way the pieces are interpreted in terms of their formal and conceptual characteristics, rather than their technical, personal, or historical ones. They were presented, in other words, as visual art, rather than material culture.

That these were quilts made by people, for use, passed down maybe as family heirlooms, objects for warmth, for protection, objects that brought a little color into a quiet, maybe even dull life — was totally elided from the stories of these quilts. The women who made them hovered like clouds of breath in the air of the galleries.  I imagined their quiet conversation, their squinting, their sore and muscular fingertips.  I wondered whether they had a favorite thimble, whether this was their first quilt or their 20th.  What compelled these women to make such bold color decisions?  And what did the other members of their community think of them, these women and their colorfield quilts?  Not even the virtuosic needlework — hard to see in the dark lighting and at a distance that discourages tactile experience — gets attention from the formal interpretation.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.  On the left quilt below, you can see a stain on the fabric, an indication of the piece’s former life as a household object.  I love this small moment of use.  On the right is some of the most impressive needlework in the show.

IMG_4442IMG_4443The approach to this exhibition could be seen as an “elevation” of the quilt, from craft to artform.  And I certainly loved the bold simplicity of the galleries, the contained, specific story, and the information about color theory that I learned along the way.  It is unconventional thinking to say the least that hangs Op Art next to Quaker quilts, which speaks to the unique eye of these singular collectors.  But I’m not sure I believe that we need quilts to be juxtaposed with Modern art in order for us to see that they are Art, that they are meaningful, beautiful, or worthy of our aesthetic consideration.  And what I am sure of is that focusing on the collectors rather than the makers of these works in fact separates the quilts from a Jackson Pollock or a Barnett Newman, which are of course called by name for their makers, and not for which savvy buyer purchased them at which gallery show in New York.

Certainly, one of the beauties of an exhibition is that the visitor can receive the narrative of the curators while also being invited to look at the objects themselves, and have their own meaningful experiences with them as physical entities.  And in this case, the absence of many specific backstories about the quilts themselves left me free to imagine them, which was certainly more gratifying than something like the “Mrs. So-and-so learned needlework from her mother and worked in the X style that was inherited from X tradition” that one might see in a more traditional folk art context.

Perhaps the lesson here is that beautiful, well-used objects can speak for themselves.  These quilts vibrated with a their rich histories as well as their bold colors.  I wish their makers had been able to speak, too.